Tag Archives: information environment

Celebrity Journalism

A growing number of Americans subscribe to a Substack newsletter. Most of the successful ones are written by well-known journalists who have left our rapidly disappearing newspapers and taken their reportorial skills or well-received punditry to Substack, where they can earn considerably more. (An exception is the much-read, much quoted Heather Cox Richardson, who is a historian and has gained an enormous and lucrative following by providing historic context for the various insanities of our day.)

A recent essay has addressed this movement to the newsletter format, focusing on the “celebrity” element involved, and the effect on traditional journalism.

These high-profile defections from legacy publications have roiled the media world this year, posing a threat to more traditional publishing models. But Substack also sits at the nexus of deeper concerns about American culture: our individualistic view of work, the massive rewards that accrue to highflyers, and our willingness to invest ourselves in one-way relationships with public figures. Together, these concerns coalesce into a question: Should the people we rely on to inform us be celebrities?…

As is true across Internet culture, a writer who wants to make good money through Substack must become an influencer. Even if journalists have made their names with the assistance of rarely seen editors, fact checkers, and photographers, their personal brands are what entice fans to sign up for their newsletters. By helping writers monetize their bylines, Substack maintains the fiction that writing––or any profession, for that matter—is a solitary pursuit. Because subscribers pay writers directly, they cut around all the labor that makes good journalism possible. It’s like going to see your favorite actors perform, but with no stage manager, costume shop, or lighting crew.

These are absolutely valid concerns, but I have a different one.

I have posted several times about the unifying impact of “legacy” newspapers and other forms of genuinely mass media. Here in Indianapolis, even though we have never had anything approaching a truly first-rate daily newspaper, citizens saw the same headlines, read the same stories (if they did read past the headlines) and occupied a more-or-less common reality. Even when they disagreed with what they were reading, they were arguing about the same information.

The Internet has pretty well destroyed that common reality–and Substack, with its highly individualized approach to “news” is eroding it further. Just choose the “celebrity journalists” who share your general worldview and confirm your biases, and get your “news” straight from him or her.

Want evidence that the election was rigged, just like Trump said? Or would you prefer to read about the investigations into Trump’s fraudulent business practices, and the fact that Eric Trump “took the fifth” five hundred times during a deposition? Maybe you aren’t really interested in the imminent demise of American democracy, and ignore political news entirely, choosing to follow Kardasians and other chosen “influencers.”

It’s the balkanization of evidence and information, and it leads to–or at least supports– the divisiveness and polarization that threaten to take America down.

On the plus side, as we struggle to revive a common information environment, there is some promising news on the newspaper front, in what might be a new model for the industry.

In an unusual merger that some hope could serve as a national model to preserve local journalism, Chicago’s NPR station plans to acquire one of the city’s major daily newspapers.
On Tuesday, the board of directors for Chicago Public Media, the umbrella organization for WBEZ, approved moving forward with the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The deal is expected to be complete by Jan. 31.

Chicago is one of the nation’s largest media markets, and WBEZ — which started in the 1940s as an arm of the Chicago Board of Education — is where some of public radio’s most notable programs were formed, including “This American Life,” “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” and “Serial.”

The Sun-Times has also been publishing since the 1940s. It is known as much for its hard-hitting tabloid-like coverage as its eight Pulitzer prizes — and being the longtime home of celebrated film critic Roger Ebert. Lately, however, it has endured the same financial tumult as many other local newspapers.

One observer quoted in the story called the acquisition “a landmark deal in American local media,” and noted that it will allow the paper to access financial backing from local foundations. “This approach has worked well in Philadelphia and is off to a promising start in Chicago,” he said.

I keep reminding myself that we are in an era of transition, and that–eventually–these changes will “shake out” into a new news environment. The best-case scenario will create a generally-accepted reality enriched–but not dominated– by newsletters, blogs and internet sites.

We can only hope…..




The current, extreme polarization of the American public obviously cannot be attributed to any one cause. Differences in race, religion, gender, education, culture, experience– all of those things contribute to the way any particular individual sees the world.

But if I were pressed to identify a single culprit–a single source of today’s dysfunction–I would have to point a finger at our fragmented “Wild West” information environment. And research supports that accusation.

Americans are divided – that much is obvious after a contentious presidential election and transition, and in the midst of a politicized pandemic that has prompted a wide range of reactions.

But in addition to the familiar fault line of political partisanship, a look back at Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways project finds there have consistently been dramatic divides between different groups of Americans based on where people get their information about what is going on in the world.

Pew’s Pathway Project found–unsurprisingly–that Republicans who looked to former President Donald Trump for their news were more likely to believe false or unproven claims about the pandemic and the election.

And while Americans widely agree that misinformation is a major problem, they do not see eye to eye about what actually constitutes misinformation. In many cases, one person’s truth is another’s fiction.

The Pathways project explored Americans’ news habits and attitudes, and traced how those habits influenced what they believed to be true. The project focused on claims about the Coronavirus and the 2020 election; it drew its conclusions from 10 different surveys conducted on Pew’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of U.S. adults. Each survey consisted of about 9,000 or more U.S. adults, so the “n” (as researchers like to call the number of people participating in any particular study) was sufficient to produce very reliable results.

Over the course of the year, as part of the project, the Center published more than 50 individual analyses and made data from more than 580 survey questions available to the public in an interactive data tool. We now have the opportunity to look back at the findings over the full course of the year and gather together the key takeaways that emerged.

The report that did emerge can be accessed at the link. It explored key findings in five separate areas: evidence pointing to media “echo chambers” on the left and the right, and the identity and characteristics of the Americans who consistently turned to those echo chambers: Trump’s role as a source of news;  Americans’ concerns about and views of what constitutes misinformation; the distinctive characteristics of Americans who rely on social media for their news; and a final chapter tracing changes in these beliefs and attitudes over time.

The entire report is nuanced and substantive, as is most research from Pew, but the “take away” is obvious: Americans today occupy information “bubbles” that allow them to inhabit wildly different realities.

This most recent study builds on what most thoughtful Americans have come to recognize over the past few years, and what prior studies have documented. One study that has received wide dissemination found that watching only Fox News made people less Informed than those who watched no news at all. The study found NPR and the Sunday morning television shows to be most informative.

There are fact-checking sites, and media bias sites that rate the reliability of news sources–but these sources are only useful when people access them. Ideologues of the Left and Right, who engage in confirmation bias, rarely do.

The Pew study builds on a number of others, and together they pose a critical question: since the law cannot draw a line between propaganda and truth without eviscerating the First Amendment, how do we overcome the vast informational trust chasm that the Internet has generated?